Raikkonen continued to lap up to four tenths of a second a lap quicker than Massa as the race passed the ten lap mark, with Hamilton beginning to apply the pressure on Alonso and Kovalainen doing likewise to Kubica behind, though neither was close enough to launch a challenge. Heidfeld, Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli and the advancing Rosberg rounded out the top ten, with the Hondas of Rubens Barrichello – equalling Riccardo Patrese's record number of grand prix starts in Barcelona this weekend – and Jenson Button just behind.
The biggest surprise at this stage of the race, however, was that Alonso had still not made his first pit-stop, making his sensational qualifying performance on Saturday seem even more impressive and giving McLaren and BMW considerable cause for concern, despite the Spaniard's low-key pre-race predictions [see separate story – click here
The double world champion was, however, the first man to blink at the end of lap 16, fuelling for a long middle stint as he had done back in 2006 – then en route
to victory – and consequently rejoining in-between the duelling Hondas down in eleventh place. That allowed Hamilton to finally get the hammer down, and the 23-year-old did indeed immediately set personal bests, just three tenths of a second shy of the quickest lap of the race.
Massa was next in, stopping some way short of his marks in his pit box, and he came back on-track behind seventh-placed Trulli. Raikkonen followed suit a lap later, but the McLarens and BMWs sailed on. That promoted Hamilton – 2.4 seconds clear of Kubica – into the lead of the grand prix with 46 laps remaining, whilst further back Webber and Trulli came in together, rejoining in the same order.
Hamilton and Kubica pitted at the same time at the end of lap 21, vaulting Kovalainen to the head of the field. Crucially for the pair's ambitions to leapfrog Massa, they both rejoined just behind
Rosberg, though the Williams too would make its first pit visit only a lap later.
The biggest drama of the race, though, was about to follow, as the cameras suddenly showed Kovalainen's car embedded heavily in the tyre barriers at turn nine, after something seemed to break and fly off the McLaren, causing its left front tyre to blow midway through the corner – not dissimilar to team-mate Hamilton's high-speed 'off' in qualifying at the Nürburgring last year – and the Finn became a helpless passenger at more than 140mph.
The MP4-23 ploughed straight on at unabated speed into the tyres, with the safety car and medical car both being immediately sent out. Happily, Kovalainen gave the thumbs-up as he was stretchered away to the medical centre afterwards, no doubt in a degree of shock and pain, but happily conscious. He was later transported to the local hospital for further checks on possible concussions.
A big loser under the second safety car period of the race was new leader Heidfeld, who had no choice but to pit before the pit-lane was open as he was about to run out of fuel, the German thereby earning himself a stop-go penalty. Both Hondas, Coulthard and Nakajima all took the opportunity to re-fuel once the pit-lane had been officially opened, before Barrichello – in his 256th grand prix – curiously managed to remove his front wing leaving the pits again, almost colliding with another car on the exit. That prompted a particularly slow out-lap and another pit visit for the experienced Brazilian – not to mention a good deal of embarrassment.
When the action got underway again for the third time, the question now was whether Hamilton could make any impression on second-placed Massa, whilst Heidfeld's penalty destroyed his hopes of a rostrum finish, and maybe even any points at all as he dropped right down to the back of the field as a result. Webber, Trulli and Rosberg, meanwhile – the latter enjoying an increasingly strong race from his lowly grid slot – reprised their Bahrain showing to battle it out over the lower points-scoring positions and Brits Button and Coulthard were also in close proximity again further back, with just 16 runners left in play.
On lap 33 there was heartbreak for Spanish fans as Alonso suddenly slowed from third place, with flames licking out of the back of his Renault engine as he parked it on the grass to make it a double whammy for the luckless Régie
. That promoted Webber, Trulli and Rosberg's battle to one for fifth place, with Nakajima eighth and, incredibly, the plucky Takuma Sato ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella, Button, Coulthard, Timo Glock and Heidfeld just shy of the points. Only 14 drivers now remained in contention following Barrichello's retirement, and both Super Aguri and Force India began to sense a real opportunity to open their accounts for the year.